A friend of mine cheated on his wife a couple of years ago. Without going into details, they had a period where they had to live quite far apart and while they were, my friend grew close to another woman and eventually they had sex.
I saw him the weekend after he had confessed what he had done to his wife. He was crushed, obviously. He was afraid of his wife leaving him and was weighed down by the realisation that if she did, it was all his fault. She needed time away from him to think things through and while he understood this and respected it, it tortured him. She didn’t leave him, I can report, and they reconciled, but for a while after his confession it looked ready to go either way.
I distinctly remember one moment during one of our long conversations that weekend, where he seemed to look down and observe his arms and his body, shaking his head saying, “How could I have done this, Arni? This is not who I am!” I immediately corrected him, “This is who you are. You are capable of cheating on your wife and you did cheat on your wife. That was you. And as long as you don’t reconcile yourself to that fact and make it a truth about yourself that you hold right in front of your nose, you’ll be in danger of cheating on your wife again.”
My friend Eric Reitan wrote an excellent blog about self-forgiveness yesterday. In it, he asks why, given how relatively easy it can be to forgive others, it is so hard to forgive yourself. It’s a genuinely insightful post and I agree with it all, especially his point about the necessity of abdication, the giving up of power, being what makes self-forgiveness so difficult.
But I’d like add one thought, if I may.
Eric distinguishes self-forgiveness from self-deception and that’s exactly right. The one thing we cannot do if we want to forgive ourselves is to deceive ourselves. And that’s exactly what, in my experience of myself and with my friends, makes self-forgiveness so hard. Because in order to forgive ourselves we must confront ourselves. We need to get acquainted with sides of our character we would like to remain ignorant of, forget and ignore. Self-forgiveness necessarily entails the disturbing realisation that we aren’t as good as we thought or hoped we were.
Most of the time, it’s easy enough to think of ourselves as good people. We cast ourselves in familiar roles and go about our way thinking, “I’m basically a good person. I’m a good friend, a good husband, a good employee, a good student, a good son. I can do this, if only I put a bit more effort in.” And we might be right to a significant degree. But we are also bad people, a fact we like to ignore. It doesn’t cross our minds that within us all lies the potential to truly hurt others, by our forgetfulness, excessive self-regard, callousness, pride, selfish ambition and so on.
But when we do hurt someone and end up with losing a dear friend or finding our wife hovering about the doorstep, uncertain of whether she is coming or going, that’s when we meet our real selves. Or, parts of our real selves that we didn’t know or didn’t want to know were there. It is here that self-deception, perhaps via misdirection, as Eric says, becomes so tempting. If only we can make ourselves forget that however good we might be, we are also most certainly bad, then we can retreat into that comfortable fog of thinking of ourselves as (entirely) good persons.
The self-discovery that necessarily proceeds self-forgiveness can be genuinely traumatising. It can be shocking. We didn’t know that we were people like that. And we have to adjust our image of ourselves in ways that we find uncomfortable. Our expectations, of ourselves and of others, have to change in light of such a self-discovery. We must confront the fact that the world isn’t divided up into neat categories of good and bad – with us firmly planted in the good category and them in the other – but that the line separating the two goes straight through our very soul. And we realise that it’s possible to fail. Maybe our friend will never want to talk to us again (and even if he does forgive us, his wife never will). Maybe our wife leaves and doesn’t look back. Maybe our wife will stay, but she’ll always think less of us. Maybe we’ll be kicked out of uni. Maybe we’ll be left with a criminal record for the rest of our lives. Maybe this ends all of our prospects in the community. Maybe we’ll never be able to speak again in church. And so on. So in addition to requiring self-discovery, self-forgiveness can lead to the discovery that the universe works by a different set of rules than we in our naiveté expected.
There’s a side of us that wants to do without this knowledge, of ourselves and of the world. And it’s that side’s strong pull on us that is part of the reason self-forgiveness is so hard.
But that’s precisely why self-forgiveness is such a good thing. With self-forgiveness comes truth. And that’s a gift much more precious than the false comforts of a rose-coloured view of ourselves, however uncomfortable it is to receive and to live with.
This is a silly topic. Or, it’s a silly angle on an interesting enough topic. There’s obviously no form of music that Christians should have to defend listening to. If a Christian enjoys a certain form of music, he or she should feel free to listen to it.
But it is a fact that with the possible exception of gangster rap, metal is and historically has been the form of modern music that has received most resistance and condemnation from Christians. As a lifelong metal fan I know something of this resistance and condemnation, even if it takes the more benign form of semi-amused incredulity these days. But occasionally, I’ll run into someone who insists that metal is Satanic somehow and is therefore inappropriate for a Christian like myself.
This post is partly a response to those kinds of people, partly a help to other, perhaps younger metal-loving Christians confronted by those kinds of people, and just a lighthearted exercise in theological reflection on culture and art.
Metal isn’t serious about evil
Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut is usually designated the first real metal album. Listen to that title track. Even 40 years later, the evil drips of that diminished chord progression. And the lyrics are about human sacrifice at some sort of black mass. There’s no denying that metal loves evil. From lyrics, to album art, to band names, to t-shirt designs, to music videos, to, a certain extent, the sound itself and even to the personal views of some metal musicians, evil is written into the DNA of metal.
But how serious are metal musicians about their evil? Not very, I would argue.
The Satanic imagery of Black Sabbath, for example, is much better explained by a working class rebellion against the easy, flower power optimism of the music that was popular at the time than by literal colluding with Satan himself (even if Sabbath continued the antipathy towards organised religion so prevalent at the time). There’s more factory floor and smog in Black Sabbath’s music than hellfire and brimstone. Socio-economic factors played an important role in the shaping of metal music and its imagery. From the start, metal has shone an indirect light on the more difficult and dark bits of the human condition and via its diabolical themes provided a catharsis for those struggling with those bits. There’s a certain form of escapism in the heart of metal, perhaps taken to its purest form when Dio started incorporating straight up fantasy into it.
That’s where the evil comes from. It’s not real evil, but the imagery and symbolism of evil. It’s not intended, for the most part at least, to refer directly to and endorse actual evil. Rather, by using extreme and fantastic portrayals of the diabolical, metal musicians past and present indirectly deal with the darkness that lies at the heart of human existence.
And so, evil became part of the grammar of metal. It’s part of what makes metal metal, just like distorted guitars and black t-shirts. Even Christian metal bands, who obviously have a more, shall we say, strained relationship to evil imagery, cannot escape that grammar. So one band call themselves Demon Hunter and another sings about “Satan’s Doom” – to name only two examples from the top of my head.
Metal’s evil is a stand-in for frustrations, with difficult socio-economic situations in particular and the darkness of the human condition in general. Which is why I don’t think metal is that serious about evil. Or, it probably isn’t fair to say that metal isn’t serious about evil. It is, just not in the way some Christians think it is. And therefore, metal’s evil is nothing to be afraid of.
Metal is serious about evil
On the other hand, it would be slightly dishonest to deny a connection between the evil imagery and symbolism so widely used in metal and some form of anti-religion, in general, and anti-Christianity, in particular. Because metal is quite anti-religion and anti-Christian. If you took a survey, I’m quite certain that you would find a higher proportion explicitly anti-religious and anti-Christian opinions among metal musicians than among musicians in most other genres. I’m also sure that most metal musicians, like most people, have a live-and-let-live attitude about the whole thing, saying something to the effect of, “If you don’t push it down people’s throat, I’m fine with you believing whatever the hell you believe!” But I believe that anti-religious and anti-Christian sentiment is more widely represented among metal musicians than most – and that goes a long way, together with the factors mentioned above, in explaining the presence of evil imagery in metal.
And that’s a good thing, in my opinion.
Take a look at most popular music today and you’ll have a difficult time finding any mention of religion. But religion is all over metal. Indeed, religion lies at the heart of metal. Yes, it’s a negative view of religion and, especially, a subversion of its symbolism. But it’s still religion!
It’s a bit like horror films. In most other film genres, life is portrayed basically atheistically. People go about their daily lives without any heed whatsoever paid to religion. Not so in horror films. There, people require exorcisms, crucifixes melt vampires, demons walk the earth, people go to hell, churches are the backdrop to epic showdowns between good and evil, and so on. Horror films pay religion the compliment of taking it seriously enough to subvert it.
The same goes for metal. It might be subversive in its treatment of religion and the anti-religious spirit of that subversion might offend some believers, but at least it takes religion seriously. Antipathy is far more preferable, I think, than apathy. In a cultural landscape religiously decimated, metal should be an oasis of intrigue and, perhaps, hope.
Or, at least some ass kicking music.
(If you find this topic interesting, you might want to read this post over at the excellent Heavy Blog… Is Heavy.)
Not a gamer at all, but I am a nerd and like to keep up with nerd culture, so I found these two videos about religion in video games really, really interesting. I especially liked how critically nuanced and carefully religion was treated, teasing out the different aspects of religion as they appear in video games. It doesn’t just reflect some predetermined opinion about what religion is supposed to be, but rather demonstrates fairness and evenhandedness in its letting practical (virtual) reality decide what religion actually is. Excellent.
Sometimes, it’s good to stop, putting religious differences aside and forgetting about the arguments, and quietly acknowledging the humanity of all people. This beautiful exchange between NPR’s Terry Gross and author of, among others, Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak about death is an opportunity to do so.
I don’t know about you, but I’m sniffling.
It’s weird. I was talking to someone the other day and this came up: Over the last two or three years, I’ve pretty much listened exclusively to metal. Or at least metal has made up the majority of the music I have listened to. I got into metal as a teenager, but I took a large detour into all kinds of other genres in my twenties, though my love of and interest in metal always remained. Now that I’m approaching my thirties I find myself returning to metal. Not that I mind, obviously, but this isn’t what my parents told me would happen when I bought my first metal record as a 12 year old.
Anyways. Here are the metal albums I enjoyed most in 2012. First, my top 5 and then a selection of other notable albums.
5. Between The Buried And Me – The Parallax II: Future Sequence
As an old Dream Theater fan, the new Between The Buried and Me pleased me greatly. More than a few moments on Parallax II channeled Dream Theater very, shall we say, faithfully. But Between The Buried and Me transcend the typical progressive stuff (justifying its presence in the process) by staying faithful to their extreme roots. The result is a brutal record that blazes an genuinely exciting trail between traditional progressive and modern extreme metal.
4. Meshuggah – Koloss
What’s great about Koloss is that while it’s vintage Meshuggah – complex, hypnotic and insanely heavy – it’s Meshuggah at their most poppy and accessible in years. I don’t know if it was a deliberate decision, possibly in light of the recent popularity of djent, to make an album that new fans could easily get into, while still pleasing the old fans. Whatever the case, Koloss is Meshuggah’s best album in years – and that’s saying something, because their albums in the last couple of years have all been exceedingly good.
3. Devin Townsend – Epicloud
With some bands, I find, you like them for their potential, rather than the music they actually play and put out. That’s how I’ve felt about Devin Townsend for a long time. I first got into him and his amazing voice via Steve Vai’s Sex and Religion, but I never really managed to get into his solo stuff after that, how hard I tried. I feel like with Epicloud Devin has finally fulfilled his potential. Actually, that’s kind of a condescending way of putting it. What I really mean is that with Epicloud Devin has decided to focus exclusively on elements that have been present, but not, in my estimation, present enough in his previous music, and has made those elements the central building blocks for an all-round amazing album. It’s epic and loud, yes, but it’s also tender and beautiful, brutal and massive. I love it.
2. Cloudkicker – Fade
Cloudkicker is amazing. While perhaps strictly speaking not metal album, but something more like progressive post-rock, Fade warrants a mention here given Cloudkicker’s metal past. While no longer quite as heavy as previous albums, Fade is vintage Cloudkicker: Drony polyrhythmic instrumental songs that patiently draw you in and take you on epic hypnotising journeys. The music is dynamic and beautifully, yet subtly melodic. Really good music for studying, quiet reflection and, I imagine, making out.
1. Periphery – II: This Time It’s Personal
What most impressed me with II is how Periphery has grown and matured. The arrangements, especially, and the songwriting is still deeply complex, but not in a way that is too impressed with itself. And it’s musical, through-and-through. You can nerd out, trying to figure out the time signatures and air guitar the riffs, but you can also just sit back and enjoy the music. Which is kind of incredible, when you think about it, for a progressive metal album. Can I also mention how much vocalist Spencer Sotelo has improved? He was good on the debut, but his performance on II is genuinely impressive and integrated.
Other awesome 2012 metal in no particular order:
The Contortionist – Intrinsic
The Faceless – Autotheism
Feed The Rhino – The Burning Sons
Gojira – L’Enfant Sauvage
The HAARP Machine – Disclosure
Jeff Loomis – Plains of Oblivion
Lamb of God – Resolution
The Safety Fire – Grind The Ocean
Veil of Maya – Eclipse
7 Horns 7 Eyes – Throes of Absolution
Glass Cloud – The Royal Thousand
My scariest theological moment of 2012 was just the other day when at a children’s birthday party of all places, a couple of guys and I were discussing the nature of hell. I ended up defending annihilationism against the eternal torment views of… my dentist! There’s something profoundly disturbing about discussing the prospect of unyielding, all-encompassing, everlasting pain with the guy who gave you a root canal a couple of months ago. Somehow, I’m not looking forward to my next appointment (which I should book soon, come to think of it)!
Here are the fiction titles published in 2012 that I particularly enjoyed reading. Again, in no particular order…
Ruins (Pathfinder #2), by Orson Scott Card
When Rigg and his friends crossed the Wall between the only world they knew and a world they could not imagine, he hoped he was leading them to safety. But the dangers in this new wallfold are more difficult to see. Rigg, Umbo, and Param know that they cannot trust the expendable, Vadesh – a machine shaped like a human, created to deceive – but they are no longer certain that they can even trust one another. But they will have little choice. Because although Rigg can decipher the paths of the past, he can’t yet see the horror that lies ahead: A destructive force with deadly intentions is hurtling toward Garden. If Rigg, Umbo, and Param can’t work together to alter the past, there will be no future.
I read the first book in the trilogy earlier in the year and really looked forward to this one being released in October. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a fine continuation of the saga. Lots of new are layers added, to the story and to the characters. You never quite know where you’re going and what’s coming next. It was genuinely exciting. One thing that I really like about Scott Card, having read a dozen of his books, is not only his stories, but his story telling. His writing is transparent somehow. It’s like a good bass player in the way it gets out of the way and just tells the story. Some prose impresses you (look further down the list), but his doesn’t, in the best possible way. And that’s kind of impressive.
Wool Omnibus, by Hugh Howey
This is the story of mankind clawing for survival, of mankind on the edge. The world outside has grown unkind, the view of it limited, talk of it forbidden. But there are always those who hope, who dream. These are the dangerous people, the residents who infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple. They are given the very thing they profess to want: They are allowed outside.
First of all, the utterly dystopian setting is excellently thought up and becomes even more so as more and more is revealed in the course of the book(s). The characters, too, are sympathetic and the plot is gripping. I was hooked from the first page and was genuinely entertained by the progression of the story, a progression that kept me guessing all the way. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing with these dystopian, post-apocalyptic books, but I found the doom day scenario plausible. That added a sense of unease and, somehow, truth.
The Twelve (The Passage #2), by Justin Cronin
At the end of The Passage, the great viral plague had left a small group of survivors clinging to life amidst a world transformed into a nightmare. In the second volume of this epic trilogy, this same group of survivors, led by the mysterious, charismatic Amy, go on the attack, leading an insurrection against the virals: the first offensives of the Second Viral War.
To do this, they must infiltrate a dozen hives, each presided over by one of the original Twelve. Their secret weapon: Alicia, transformed at the end of book one into a half human, half viral—but whose side, in the end, is she really on?
I’m more of zombie guy than a vampire guy, but having stripped away the glamour and romanticism Cronin’s “virals” are not only bearable, but enjoyable and genuinely scary. What a fantastic book! I was drawn in and happily dragged along from the very first page. Like The Passage, to which, obviously, this is the sequel, it starts out in a series of vignettes, which all come together in the end. And what an end it is! A very satisfactory and nail-biting last couple of chapters. I was also struck by just how good the writing was. Not only the words Cronin masterfully strings together, but the characters and their developments was superb. I loved that Lila was basically a vampire desperate housewife. And I found the relationship between Amy and Wolgast even more beautiful than in the first book.
Three Feet of Sky, by Stephen Ayres
If humanity created an afterlife, would you be accepted? Adam Eden confronts a world of predatory psychopaths, an annoying concierge, and a naked neighbour … with a peculiar talent.
After years of destitution, Adam Eden’s life is finally on the up. But, whilst out celebrating his recent good fortune, Adam unwittingly chooses death over embarrassment.
Awaking in a future of leisure, luxury, and immortality, Adam suffers serious shrinkage and is branded an ‘undesirable’. Shunned by family and neighbours for his first-life sins, can he find respect and redemption in this tightly controlled world? Facing a grim eternity, Adam wants out.
A randomly chosen day trip changes everything. Though cruel and heartless, they always let you choose your weapon.
Funny books are quite hit and miss for me. I was reminded of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy while reading this one – a book that I hated. But Three Feet of Sky pulls it off somehow. Turns out that I really, really liked this one. The humour is silly and random, but there’s always rhyme and reason, or, rather, momentum and resolution. Adam Eden, the protagonist, is a compelling anti-hero whose development throughout the book had me genuinely rooting for him. As the book progresses, it becomes a real page turner and now I can’t wait for the second book, out, I understand, in early 2013.